biographical data

Sacheen Littlefeather biography: 13 things about Native American civil rights activist, actress, model

Sacheen Littlefeather is a Native American civil rights activist, actress and model born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, United States. Her father Manuel Ybarra Cruz is White Mountain Apache and Yaqui while her mother Geroldine Marie Barnitz is French, German and Dutch.

Littlefeather studied elementary education at Hartnell Junior College in Salinas and dramatics and speech at California State College at Hayward in Hayward, California. The latter was renamed California State University, Hayward in 1972 and California State University, East Bay in 2005.


In 1975, Littlefeather became very ill after her lungs collapsed, a consequence of her childhood tuberculosis. After regaining her health, she earned a degree in holistic health and nutrition from Antioch University in California and became a health consultant to Native American communities across the U.S.

On March 27, 1973, Littlefeather became the first indigenous woman and the first woman of color to use the Academy Awards platform to make a political statement. Here are 13 more things about her.

  1. In 1950, her mother left her father and took her and her two younger sister to live with their maternal grandparents Gerold “Barney” Barnitz and Marie Barnitz.
  2. From 1960 to 1964, she attended North Salinas High School in Salinas.
  3. In 1966, her father died at the age of 44. In 1969, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in California to pursue a modeling career and joined the United Bay Indian Council.
  4. In 1970, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, California and adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather. In 1972, she was one of the models photographed for Playboy magazine’s 10 Little Indians spread, which was cancelled because the photos were deemed not erotic enough. The magazine released her photos as a standalone feature after she appeared at the 45th Academy Awards on March 27, 1973 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California to decline “The Godfather” actor Marlon Brando‘s Best Actor award on his behalf as a protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the standoff at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, USA, which started on February 27, 1973. She played Maggie in the Italian-Spanish crime film “Il Consigliori“, which was released in Italy on August 30, 1973, and a minor role in the neo-noir film “The Laughing Policeman“, which was released in the U.S. on December 20, 1973.
  5. In 1974, she attended acting, yoga, fencing and dancing classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She played Patsy Littlejohn in “The Trial of Billy Jack“, which was released on November 13, 1974, and a minor role in “Freebie and the Bean“, which was released on December 25, 1974. In 1975, he played Nenya in “Johnny Firecloud” and Pale Flower in “Winterhawk“. In 1978, she played a Navajo woman in “Shoot the Sun Down“.
  6. She is one of the original teachers in St. Mary’s Traditional Indian Medicine program, which consisted of a series of conferences held between 1984 and 1990. In 1988, she served as the secretary and community member-at-large on the interim board of directors of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.
  7. In 1991, she recovered from colon cancer surgery.
  8. In 2009, her mother died at the age of 86. In the same year she appeared in the documentary “Reel Injun“.
  9. In 2012, she was reported to be in remission from breast cancer.
  10. She was awarded an honorary Eagle Spirit Award at the 2013 American Indian Film Festival. She appeared in the short documentary films “The Invisible Peak” in 2014 and “Sacheen” in 2019.
  11. In March 2018, a spokesperson announced that she had developed stage 4 breast cancer. In November 2019,  the Red Nation International Film Festival honored her with the Brando Award, which recognizes individuals for their contributions to the American Indian.
  12. In June 2021, she told The Guardian that she was terminally ill as the cancer in her breast had metastasized to her right lung.
  13. In June 2022, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences formally apologized to her for the mistreatment she experienced during her speech at the 45th Academy Awards, which she discussed at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles in September 2022. On October 2, 2022, she died at her home in Novato, California. She was 75.

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